Each successive “Ice Age” movie brings a batch of new characters. So by this fourth installment, the prehistoric era is getting mighty overcrowded with critters voiced by comedians, TV stars and young pop idols.
“Ice Age: Continental Drift” isn’t always sure what to do with this bloated cast of 30 featured characters. At least the film’s strong visual scheme and action-oriented plot help. Sure, it’s an extraneous piece of animated merchandise, but it’s a watchable one. Not every sequel can be “Toy Story 3.”
“Continental Drift” picks up with this hodgepodge of beasts battling geographic upheaval. This comes courtesy of Scrat, the saber-toothed squirrel whose greedy obsession with gathering an elusive acorn has caused more environmental cataclysm than BP.
Wooly mammoth Manny (voiced by Ray Romano), saber-toothed tiger Diego (Denis Leary, fresh from playing the police captain in the new “Spider-Man”) and sloth Sid (John Leguizamo) get separated from the herd, adrift in the ocean on a floating piece of ice. They encounter tidal waves, earthquakes, waterspouts and a “vicious assortment of seafood.”
But their main enemy becomes the pirate Captain Gutt (the top-notch Peter Dinklage), a gorilla who has organized castaways into a ruthless plundering force. His first mate is the tiger Shira (Jennifer Lopez), who forms a love/hate bond with Diego.
“Continental Drift” juggles its unwieldy cast by dividing the story into three plotlines: the main pirate clash, Manny’s family chased by Mother Nature, and Scrat’s discovery of a map leading to a treasure trove. The predicament faced by screenwriters Michael Berg and Jason Fuchs is in making all three sections appealing.
At the top of the heap is anything involving Scrat (which is why the first five minutes of his amusing tale got released as a teaser trailer months ago). Like Wile E. Coyote in the Road Runner cartoons, the furry rodent (whose various squeaks and screeches are voiced by original “Ice Age” director Chris Wedge) is so driven by a singular, Sisyphean objective that he draws sympathy with each hilarious failing.
The core narrative with Manny’s gang is more uneven. The characters don’t have a ton of personality, other than the goofball Sid, whose role seems limited to screwing up whenever possible. Fortunately, the pirates are threatening and cunning enough to hinder the heroes at every turn.
But the attention of viewers drifts whenever the action moves back to the central herd. The film attempts to key on the Disney-esque plot of familial separation, with Manny’s teen daughter Peaches (Keke Palmer) acting out against her parents before she and Dad get split up.
Peaches asks, “When exactly am I allowed to hang out with boys?
Manny responds, “When I’m dead. Plus three days — just to make sure I’m dead.”
No surprise that the filmmakers try to use Romano — one of the most memorable TV sitcom dads of all time — as a long-suffering parent. It’s just a lot harder to accept paternal poignancy coming from a tusked, extinct creature.
This stab at emotional depth always comes across as contrived, as do most of the scenes where Peaches and company are onscreen.
And the irritating voice work of pop diva Nicki Minaj as a “mean girl” mammoth makes viewers long for the nuance and finesse of “Ice Age: The Meltdown.”‘Ice Age 4’ * *
Time: 1:34 3-D or not 3-D?
The “drift” of “Ice Age: Continental Drift” offers opportunities to showcase shifting prehistoric terrains that look splendid in 3-D. Also effective: Saber-toothed squirrel Scrat pokes his nose into the audience on his quest for acorns.